Writing a Saint Nicholas Icon

by Kate Sterner, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, who shares her experience and reflections on writing a Saint Nicholas icon

I'm auditing the seminary's iconography class. We are writing St. Nicholas. I thought I'd try to take a photo after each class/stage.

St. Nicholas Icon
What we are trying to copy; it was written by our teacher, Debra Korluka, of Icon Art Studios.
St. Nicholas Icon
Tracing on the white gesso board
St. Nicholas Icon
Opaque base coats

Obviously I have a LOT of work to do . . . good thing we spend a significant chunk of time praying before we work on these things . . . .

We had another class today and the hardest part of it was trying to figure out how to illuminate the folds in clothing. I certainly didn't get it. A couple of us did, but most of us got frustrated. Frustration, too, is part of the learning experience.

Some of my fellow iconography students
Here's my teacher working on the detail of Nick's robe. She has used three different shades of the same color. The darker color is the bottom coat, and the progressively lighter coats determine the shaping of the folds in the cloth.
Detail from another icon; notice detail of folds of the robe

I'm just plain puzzled about how to make this turn out like that. For some reason this is not sinking in, and I feel like I just need to sit down and stare at this for a good long time.

Okay, so how did I do today? Not the best. But I'll try to work on it some more before class next week. Maybe it will come to me.

My current progress
My teacher decided, in the interest of saving time, that she would paint the black lines that will define the faces of our St. Nicholas-es. I don't think I could have done as well as she did.
One of my classmates working; he managed to get this right. His shading is much more detailed than mine, and at a variety of angles, and more like the shading detail seen in professional icons.

Today we began painting the omophorion, the yellow-ish white stole worn by bishops. We also adorned our Gospel books, which is the one piece that allows some freedom of design in the tradition. I'm not done with my omophorion, though, because I have to finish the crosses on his shoulders. Right now they are big black lines.

Our teacher let us use scotch tape to mark out the outlines of the crosses, and then we could just paint in the space, so that our crosses would have very nice, clean lines. I'm going to use this technique to straighten out the lines of my Gospel. Straight lines are very hard to control free-hand.

I am anticipating having great difficulty shading the face, because I have not yet figured out the shading technique. It has been shown to me a number of times, but I just am not connecting with it.

Brother Jim asked me to reflect on my spiritual experience of icon writing. (Er—and yes, St. Casserole, icons are indeed "written," and not "painted.") I have to confess that my spiritual experience is not very ethereal, but more practical and humbling. There are only three hours to each class, which includes lecture and prayer time; although we are allowed to work on our icons while the lecture is proceeding. I feel rushed and urgent. There has not been time for a more meditative experience. Instead, it has been an exercise in humility and frustration, though for some more so than for me.

There is a wide variety of artistic skill level in the class, and some people are very discouraged with their results. This all leads to reflections on how we end up judging ourselves against each other, rather than concentrating on our own development. Counter productive, but very illustrative. There has to be a starting point to the process of becoming really good at something, eh? Why fret?

I think the self-imposed judgmentalism comes because we are trying to copy something that someone else has done. In striving, how can we do other than come up short? The tradition is very strict. Things have to be just so. There is discipline to this study. Boundaries are powerful learning tools.

Having taught previously in my life, I realize that there is only so much a teacher can do for you. I remember former students whom I just could not help. I am not accustomed to being one of them, however, but it was both humbling and comforting to recognize when my teacher got to that point where she knew she could not help me further. "It will be what it will be," she said, with a wise and kind smile.

So ultimately, failure ceases to be frustrating and just becomes part of the process, and you accept it and are grateful, because you realize that you are benefitting and learning something from the experience of failure.

Okay, here's where I am with my Nick at the moment. Pretty much done. I just need to get the script ("Saint Nicholas") written, and then the varnish coats.

I have the gold leafing on my nimbus, and I've decided I'm not going to tweak the face anymore.
In my opinion, this one is the best in the class, done by Kim, who sits at the next table. She has an arts degree with a specialization in painting, so she's a natural. I think hers looks genuine and ancient. Absolutely stunning.

Here are some of my classmates' icons in the process of gilding. The process is very interesting. First you take some of that white liquid glue (in the jar on the table), called "size," and you paint a thin layer on the white area of your gesso board, the only place we haven't written yet. Then you let that dry. After that you take a sheet of the orange paper-backed gold leaf, lay a portion of that over your sized area, and rub on the paper backing.

Then you just lift up the paper and the gold stays in place.
After the whole nimbus is covered with gold, you polish it with a soft cloth to wipe away the excess. Here is a close up showing the excess leafing before I polished it away.

After the leafing is done, you write a thin line of red paint around the edge.

We talked more about the spiritual experience of icon writing. My teacher talked about how peaceful she feels when she works on an icon. Some of the students also talked about this while they worked on their icons outside of class, when they could be quiet and concentrate. I think that must be when there is room inside you for this experience to fill you up. It's not going to happen in the bustle of class. It also seems to me to be something that you gain as your experience with the technique increases.

After everyone finished all their last minute touching up—putting on their lettering, putting on their last white ring around the red ring around the nimbus--we each took a spray can of varnish and went outside to coat the surface of our icons with the sealant. Didn't take much.

Our chapel service will center mostly on the history of iconography and on St. Nicholas. Appropriately, it is scheduled for Dec. 19, which, on the old Orthodox calendar, is the official day for St. Nicholas. Each classmate was given something to read that teaches something about icons and about St. Nicholas; mine is to read a little paragraph about the importance of iconography in the Orthodox church.

Finished icons and their authors in the chapel

I thought I'd show you close-ups of as many of the finished icons as I could get. One of the things we have been marveling about amongst ourselves is that each of the faces is quite different from the others. It's as if this was a group of brothers; you can tell that they all come from the same family, but each one has their own look and personality. You know it's St. Nicholas, because of the white beard and balding head, and a few other clues. But look at the variety in these renditions!

The class talked awhile and asked some final questions of the teacher. Several people reported having very moving experiences while they had worked on their icon over the course of the six weeks. They had found the task challenging, and they were surprised by their own success. It seems to have been a powerful exercise for a few, and definitely pleasant and satisfying for all.

At the end of class, Pastor Bob blessed our icons, using some prayers modified from the ELCA's Occassional Services book.

So that was the iconography experience! Not at all a monkish one, but a valuable one nonetheless, which gave me an idea of the process and the significance of icons in the faith. If you ever have the chance to take an iconography class, don't be shy. Be humble and willing, and you'll find yourself blessed by the challenge.

Order of Service with Saint Nicholas Icons


Russian Saint Nicholas site with beautiful pictures of 105 Saint Nicholas icons (the thumbnails click up into large images)

Text and photos by Kate Sterner, Blog: Dash Goes to Church, November, December 2006. Used by permission.

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